Choosing Your Own Perspective

I walked into this beautiful loft apartment, with high ceilings, stunning art, and these absolutely adorable hor dourves on Lafayette Street in Soho.  Immediately, I was reminded of the beautiful people and the fantasy of living a luxury life when one of the hosts, an absolutely stunning woman with long curly blonde hair graciously introduced herself by handing me her hand with an effervescent smile.

It was the apartment you fantasize about and see in the movies. These images felt in stark contradiction to the story I was going to hear—the story of Giles Duley, a war photographer, who takes pictures of people who are “not victims but victims of circumstances, ” and who himself had three limbs amputated.

His story condensed—after getting into an accident when he was 18,  and being gifted a camera from his godfather, he decided he would be a photographer.  He originally intended to pursue documentary photography but found himself taking pictures of his friends’ bands, going to parties and meeting beautiful woman. He took pictures for several well known publications including— GQ, Esquire, The Observer, and Vogue.

However, after ten years he found himself getting very depressed and eventually grew tired and cynical of celebrity culture until one day after a conflict about what a model was going to wear for a shoot, he threw his camera on the bed; it bounced and flew out of the window.  He quit and a severe depression set in.

He started looking after a boy as a caretaker with severe autism, 24 hours a day, four days a week and became close friends. He described the boy’s reality like he was living in a cellar and everyone was having a great time, he wanted to join them but didn’t know how to.

The boy self harmed, but his social workers didn’t take his pain seriously until Duley showed them intense picture of the self harm. It was then that he realized that he could use his camera to tell stories; this was the start of his career as a documentary photographer. He began to travel around the world to document the forgotten and marginalized.

He shared many pictures and stories at the talk, but one touched me the most. The Rohingya refugees  in Southeast Bangladesh have no access to medical support due to their unofficial status. They are often denied access to medical care from nearby hospitals.  This is not a small camp but one with at least 25,000 refugees who suffer from a multitude of illnesses and diseases, respiratory tract infections and skin diseases caused by the horrendous conditions they live in.  By all accounts, it is a very hopeless and dire situation.

Duley decided he wanted to take portraits of members of the community. To his surprise there was a long long line of people waiting for him. He panicked. “Do they understand I’m not a doctor?” he asked the leader of the local committee. The man said:

“”They know,”he replied, “but for now a photographer is all they have. At least you can show people.”

This reminded me of why stories are so important to be told and shared. Stories remind people that they matter, and their life is important.

Here is one of the pictures:

Fir Ahamad 30, and his brother Noor, 40. Fir suffers from an unknown illness causing severe joint pain With the upper body of a wrestler and a diamond-shaped knife wound on his chin, Noor carries his younger brother into the interview and lowers him gently onto the cracked plastic chair, an action that causes Fir to wince and whimper with pain. The wasting disease that has reduced him to a bag of fragile bones first began to take hold in Burma, where Fir was working as a forced labourer. "Every time I fell down the guards would beat me," he says. "Eventually I couldn't tell where the pain of the beatings stopped and the disease began." Stern-faced Noor squeezes his brother's hand as tears fill his eyes. "Every night I lay down hoping I may die in my sleep," says Fir, "so that I may be released from this pain."

Fir Ahamad 30, and his brother Noor, 40.
Fir suffers from an unknown illness causing severe joint pain
With the upper body of a wrestler and a diamond-shaped knife wound on his chin, Noor carries his younger brother into the interview and lowers him gently onto the cracked plastic chair, an action that causes Fir to wince and whimper with pain. The wasting disease that has reduced him to a bag of fragile bones first began to take hold in Burma, where Fir was working as a forced labourer. “Every time I fell down the guards would beat me,” he says. “Eventually I couldn’t tell where the pain of the beatings stopped and the disease began.” Stern-faced Noor squeezes his brother’s hand as tears fill his eyes. “Every night I lay down hoping I may die in my sleep,” says Fir, “so that I may be released from this pain.”

Dolu, 75, with grandson, Mohammad, 5. Blind in both eyes. Dolu arrives with her grandson. "Do you think he is beautiful?" she asks, "they tell me he is very beautiful." Dolu has been blind since birth, something that made life in Burma even more difficult, though she admits that never having seen her home may have made it easier for her to leave everything behind. Nor is Kutupalong a particularly easy camp to negotiate in the dark - its arterial pathways riddled with precarious drops and potholes - but she says that people are kind, and she is never short of someone to help her find her way around. And she can sense a warmth and contentment among people here that was completely lacking in Burma: this must be a wonderful place, she says, even if she can't see it.

Dolu, 75, with grandson, Mohammad, 5.
Blind in both eyes.
Dolu arrives with her grandson. “Do you think he is beautiful?” she asks, “they tell me he is very beautiful.” Dolu has been blind since birth, something that made life in Burma even more difficult, though she admits that never having seen her home may have made it easier for her to leave everything behind. Nor is Kutupalong a particularly easy camp to negotiate in the dark – its arterial pathways riddled with precarious drops and potholes – but she says that people are kind, and she is never short of someone to help her find her way around. And she can sense a warmth and contentment among people here that was completely lacking in Burma: this must be a wonderful place, she says, even if she can’t see it.

While in Afghanistan he stepped on a landmine and in that moment his life changed forever. He lost three of his limbs.  What inspired me most about his story was how how he chose to react.

Duley said, “Two days after the blast, I was in and out of consciousness, and the first person I saw was my sister, and the only words I said to her were, ‘I am still a photographer.’ It was always, for me, about getting back to whom I was, and my identity was so wrapped up in being a photographer.” He could have easily played the victim, but instead, he chose to look at the situation differently.

This is a picture that Giles took of himself.  He says “I wanted to be photographed the way I photographed others.  I was not a victim,  I was a victim of circumstance.  I’m incredibly lucky.  I see myself a better person than I was years ago. And yes, I lost my legs, I lost my arm, but inside I was exactly the same.”

Giles-Duley-self-portrait-001He shared how getting hurt helped him be empathic towards people who went through similar circumstances (see picture below) and gave him an advantage other photographers did not have. Again, instead of feeling sorry for himself, he used what happened to him, as a positive and to further his ability to connect with the people he photographed.

Afghan boy Ataqullah tries prosthetic leg

Afghan boy Ataqullah tries prosthetic leg

I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from Duley, “Life goes on, all around the world,  people are going through terrible things. Everyone of us is going through our own terrible experience, if we share those we can inspire each other to get through theirs’.”

Duley reminded us that everyone can do something to change the world. “Although I can feel helpless, I can use my skills as a photographer; everyone in this room can make a small change.”

Click here for a wonderful article by Giles about his first time going back to Afghanistan.

Below is a video of Giles giving a TED talk.

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Cut-Up Girls Experience More

Bodies sell products. Open any magazine in America and you will see parts of bodies used to sell everything from shoes to Coca-Cola. An advertisement for Tom Ford perfume shows a bottle of perfume between a woman’s breasts; a fashion spread for the magazine Details shows a woman being used as a table, and topless buff men sell Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. The common term for this is objectification—the act of reducing a person down to just her or his parts, and has been discussed by a range of philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Martha Nussbaum’s more modern seven attributes of objectification.

image thanks to Matthew Rutledge

image thanks to Matthew Rutledge

While many have touched upon the topic, Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor at Colorado College, were the first two academics to specifically use the term objectification theory to describe how American culture encourages young girls to develop an outsiders’ view on themselves. Basically, women begin to treat themselves as objects to be decorated rather than people with a mind and a voice who can express their ideas and opinions. Objectification means that a person is seen as “losing their agency” (the ability to act, plan, and make choices.) Instead, they become mere objects who don’t have any capability to experience and no agency, (ability to express themselves).

Self-objectification has several psychological repercussions including reduced cognitive ability, increase of depression, and lower self-esteem. Writer and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir beautifully described this process as women experiencing doubling: “In narcissism, the self undergoes doubling: An Other, a ‘stranger’ who is at the same time myself, is subject for whom my bodily being is object.” The woman ends up existing in the world by constantly imagining how others are viewing her, instead of having her own experience of the world.

The traditional idea of objectification is that people who are objectified/sexualized are reduced to mere objects, and do not have capacity for choice or experience, is a black and white concept. Either a person has a full mind (like a normal person) or has no ability for experience or agency (like an object). However, this view of objectification has recently been challenged. This recent paper, by Kurt Gray and colleagues, argues that people who are represented by their bodies are perceived not just as mindless objects but instead, have a “distribution of mind.” They are perceived as having more capability for experiences in pain, pleasure and other emotions and less capacity for agency.

Gray and colleagues decided to test this hypothesis that men and women who are represented by their bodies are less capable of agency (self-control and planning) but more capable of experience (sensitive to pain and emotion) in six different studies. The experiments were simple—in one study, 159 participants had to judge two pictures of people—one represented as a body and one represented as a face. They also had to read this brief description:

“This is Erin (or Aaron). She attends a liberal arts college in New England and majors in English. Outside of class, she is a member of a few student groups. On weekends, Erin likes to hang out with friends.”

After reading the description, they were asked to answer three questions by rating the picture from one to five-relating to agency and experience: “Compared to the average person, how much is Erin capable of X.” The “X” was for substituted for—agency-related capacities of “self-control,”“acting morally,” and “planning” and the experience-related capacities of “experiencing pleasure,” “experiencing hunger,” and“experiencing desire.” The results showed that participants who viewed faces perceived them as more mind oriented while the pictures of bodies elicited greater perceptions of experience-focused (hunger, pleasure, desire).

Another experiment showed participants three pictures of the same woman in one of three conditions—clothed, naked, or sexual—and asked participants to evaluate the picture for self-control, acting morally, planning, experiencing fear, desire, and pain on the iden-

tical scales. Then they turned the page over and had to answer two more questions—“How sexually suggestive is the picture on the other side of the page?” and how attractive is the person in the picture?” Each of these questions was answered on a 5-point scale from 1 (Not at All) to 5 (Extremely). The one significant interaction was between mental capacity and being clothed, suggesting that people attributed agency to clothed people and experience to naked people

Although not statistically significant, the results were similar to the above experiment, as suggestiveness increased, perceptions of agency decreased and perceptions of experience increased. This experiment showed that sexualizing people increases the perception of experience, which is very different than the traditional definition that sexualization leads to viewing a person with no agency and no experience.

The implication of these studies is troubling. Focusing on a person’s body in a professional context significantly reduces a person of having agency. The studies have given more insight into perceptions of other people’s agency and experience in several different contexts. While it focused specifically on people’s perceptions of others; it is important to point out that other studies have shown that the people who are objectified, actually have less of an ability to be present and experience flow (complete absorption and enjoyment in what one is doing.) Hopefully, the next group of studies will shed light into the different conditions that influence how people view themselves both as agents and as experiencers and how this impacts their capability for success and enjoyment of life.

This post was originally published on the Incubator, The Rockefeller University blog.

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Great Quote

I saw this quote that I thought I would share with you:

“The first step towards confidence is not being afraid to be ugly

once you get over the fear of being unattractive and stop equating beauty with other good things in life (friends, love, happiness) it’s a lot easier to love yourself unconditionally

your job is not to sit around and be pretty and easy on everyone else’s eyes

your job is to do whatever the fuck you want and look however the fuck you want while doing it.”

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Elliott Sailors, Former Female Fashion Model Decides to Pose as Male Model

Many people might have heard of Elliott Sailors, a former Ford model who decided to cut her locks and be a male model. Her story drew a lot of attention. Sailors wanted to try something different and calls it, “a new way to create inside the industry.” I emailed her on a lark and she graciously agreed to answer some of my questions over email. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Please view this video of her getting her hair cut.

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You said people speak and relate to you differently on shoots, what about during daily life, how do people react to you?

I watch people try to figure out if I’m a guy or a girl sometimes. I hear people talk about my haircut. More than just a few times when I enter a store or approach a counter someone will say, “Welcome, Sir.” or “How can I help you today, Sir.”

Elliott Sailors

Personally, I always like when that happens. It’s what I’m going for! And when they realize I’m a woman I always reassure them that it’s perfectly ok and I don’t mind.

Sometimes I’ve even been surprised by people’s reactions though. Once I was a wearing a dress, walking on the subway platform and a woman shook her head and said, “Boys in dresses…” I actually laughed out loud—it took me so off-guard!

I like when people come up to me to ask about it or clarify for themselves. I’m happy people are choosing to keep an open-minded and evolving dialogue about gender-fluidity.

Now that you can experience how it feels to be perceived as a man, how does it feel when you look at older pictures of yourself in swimsuit shoots? What goes through your head?

First of all, I did so much more than swimsuit shoots! It’s weird to me how that’s what everyone keeps focusing on… That being said, I was talking with a photographer the other day and he said, “I guess you won’t be doing any more shoots on islands!” So I guess that’s about the extent of it—when I look at those pictures I think I’ll certainly miss those trips! I don’t FEEL any differently though.

What do you think when you look in the mirror?

I find this an odd question… I don’t think I think anything differently than I did before—I check out my skin, see if I need to do a better job taking care of it and make sure my hair is in place, I guess… If I think I look tired, then I think I should get more rest. Kind of a boring answer, but I just don’t think about it much. I was at my friend’s new bar/restaurant tonight on the LES, Rochelle’s, and my mother-in-law asked why there wasn’t a mirror in the restroom. I had just been in there and said, “Wait – there wasn’t a mirror in there?” I didn’t even notice…

What was one thing that really surprised you about this change?

That people still make such awful and bigoted remarks to other people they don’t understand. I mean, we live in NEW YORK CITY—and the fact I still hear homophobic slurs yelled at my husband and me is not only shocking, but heart-breaking!

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Why do you think this story drew so much attention?

I wonder the same thing! I had no idea things would go this way. I think there are a few possible reasons:

1. I have enjoyed a successful career looking like what most call traditionally feminine. So, people find this move surprising—especially because it is my own idea and my own commitment.
2. I wanted this to make a difference for people in experiencing a freedom to find your own self-expression! I think people appreciate and understand this isn’t just some random career move. This is about something way bigger than just me or what I’m doing; it’s about freedom and creativity and self-expression really being possible in the world for humanity!
3. People seem to find it fascinating that a woman who is married to a man would choose this. A lot of people confuse gender and sexuality – and I think this is starting to clarify the difference for a lot of people. There are so many ways to express our gender and it isn’t limited by our sexuality.

Are you aware of how you are being perceived by women as well?

Yes, of course. For the most part I think the only real difference is that women recognize me as a strong individual now, as opposed to just another tall, blonde girl. I think that’s true of how men see me too though. I guess I feel I get more respect, which I didn’t know would come with just a haircut. I certainly appreciate it!

You mentioned that you have been perceived as a gay male, can you discuss this?

I think I pretty much addressed this above. When people see me as male and see me being affectionate with my husband, then their assumption seems to be that I’m a gay male. Honestly, I don’t mind that people have that perception, except when they’re judgmental or rude about it.

What I have really gotten from this story is the importance of living true to your own identity and doing what makes you feel good. It is incredibly easy to go with what society says is right but to actually live life on your own terms is challenging. This doesn’t mean to me that we are going not be influenced by society. She clearly states how society influences her but she is choosing another path. This to me is courage.

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Are Girls Just Plain Old Mean Or Is it the Society that Makes them that Way?

Do you think women are aggressive?

Well maybe, not physically, but according to this study women can be indirect in their aggression, particularly how it pertains to attractive women they feel may be a threat to them.

The study used a confederate dressed in two different outfits and looked at how college students reacted.

These were the two different outfits that the confederate wore.

Be honest—did you just say something mean about the women in the pink shirt? It’s ok. Just observe.

When she was dressed in jeans, she didn’t receive any negative comments, however, when she was dressed in the skirt, students responded with hostility. They rolled their eyes and showed outright anger. One student said she was dressed like to have sex with a professor, while another commented explicitly on how her breasts looked in the shirt.

Yes, you might be thinking that the girl in the study was dressed to the extreme, wearing a bright color pink shirt and a short skirt, but rather, I think the focus should be on why do we, as women, criticize other women based on their appearance?

I won’t act like I don’t intimidated when a pretty girl walks in the room, although now, I am standing back and trying to observe when I act like that instead of judging it. Is it really, as the researchers say, because they think someone is going to steal their men, or is it because they think that our society values these qualities? Is that the power that we think we have as women? The size of our breasts, thighs, and legs?

Researcher Dr Tracy Vaillancourt told the Times, “Women are indeed very capable of aggressing against others, especially women they perceive as rivals,” said Dr. Vaillancourt, now a psychologist at the University of Ottawa. “The research also shows that suppression of female sexuality is by women, not necessarily by men.”

Why aren’t women competing against each other in terms of intellect? Or maybe competing isn’t even the best way to support each other? It is a sad reality that women can bond with each other over criticizing other women. I’ve seen it time and time again. It’s like they are saying,”We are both jealous of how hot she is, so let’s create a common enemy and bond.”

Comparing oneself to other women is natural. Our society encourages it. Our capitalistic culture is particularly focuses on the individual instead of looking at how we can benefit from others. We instead, look at how others can be a threat to us.

I experienced a lot of mean girls growing up. There were so many mean rumors I can’t even remember all of them. Some were that my sister and I took showers together, and that I looked like I was from a concentration camp. I remember not having many friends, and silently wishing that I was invited to the parties. Instead, I just watched from afar. It’s funny now when I tell people this story when I come out, people are surprised. People also don’t expect me to have social anxiety, but that’s for another blog.

Some other interesting findings of the study the following:

One might think that women would appreciate women who are promiscuous because men are looking for women with long-term potential, however, they are threatened because sex is a limited resource and scarcity gives women an advantage.

Same sex peers influence body image of girls much more than just the exposure to media (Ferguson, et al, 2011).

Attractive women are more at risk to be indirectly victimized and females are indirectly trying to intimidate them by diminishing their values, or improving their self image that is challenged by their attractive competitors. (Massar et al, 2012)

Check out the author speaking about her study on The CBS morning show.

What can we do? We can change the way that we, as women, communicate and treat each other and point out to each other what we can offer instead of just focusing on the outside. Sounds cliche, I know, but try it, the next time you are tempted to tell a woman she looks beautiful, give her another compliment focusing on her thoughts.

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